Medical shows have been a staple of TV since the earliest days of the medium – after all, nothing’s more dramatic than literal life or death situations. From City Hospital (the first TV medical drama) to General Hospital (the longest-running TV soap opera still on the air, since 1963), there was no more reliable source of entertainment than handsome doctors and pretty nurses – except maybe cops and robbers.
TV Nurses of Yesterday and Today
A funny thing started happening around the 1970s, though, at the height of the 20th century feminist movement – TV nurses started getting interesting. With pressure to make more relatable women, TV writers and creators realized there was an audience for nurse characters who were well-rounded, realistic, and complex. The tired old sexist tropes were out, and nurses who could hold their own against any doctor were in.
Today, from the old days of empty-headed, eye-candy nurses of the 1950s and 1960s, we have a long tradition of diverse, respectable TV nurses. Sure, most of them are still pretty – it’s TV, after all – but there’s way more representation for women of every race, age, size, and sexual orientation. In the 21st century, we have a new era of showrunners, with writers, directors, and creators who bring a diversity of experience and backgrounds to create characters more like we’d see in real life.
What Makes a Nurse We’d Like to Work With?
The qualities we look for in a good TV nurse are the same kind of qualities we look for in a good real-life nurse. Sure, TV shows exist to entertain, so sensible, competent professionals aren’t necessarily the most entertaining choice. And God knows, TV nurses aren’t always the most competent or professional lot. Medical dramas have more than their fair share of sexual tension, bad decisions, and iffy medical expertise.
But it’s not those nurses we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the TV nurses so good, we’d be happy to work alongside them at any hospital, emergency room, or clinic. They’re the ones who exemplify good nursing – empathetic, calm in a crisis, mature, and caring to patients and coworkers alike. They’re not the ones who fuel the emotional close-up moments in their shows – they’re the ones who keep the other characters, and the show, grounded.
This list is about one thing – the nurses we’d love to work with. That’s the criteria. Argue all you want, but these are the characters that we think represent the best of nursing on TV.
- Ann Meredith (Perkins) Traeger, RN (Parks and Rec)
- Claire Temple/ Night Nurse (Marvel)
- Eli Lloyd (Grey’s Anatomy)
- Christina Hawthorne (HawthoRNe)
- Julia Baker (Julia)
- Carla Espinosa (Scrubs)
- Epiphany Johnson (General Hospital)
- Peter Petrelli (Heroes)
- Carol Hathaway (ER)
- Christine Chapel (Star Trek the Original Series)
Ann Perkins is an RN who keeps a level head in almost every situation. Rashida Jones is the actor who plays her, and she shows us a true example of an evolved and evolving person, from caring for a boyfriend through two broken legs, to lobbying for the removal of what caused his injury in the first place. She even stands by her best friend and Parks Department associate director Leslie Knope’s every bad idea. She is a loyal and thoughtful person, dedicated to her job, and selectively spontaneous and fun with everyone she loves. Over time she has an amicable break-up, respectfully dates around, is graceful to her ex’s new partner, and marries the ever-positive, hard-working, and health-conscious Chris Traeger – all while effortlessly maintaining her job, keeping her friends, and minimizing the amount of drama that impacts her daily life. She effectively shows us that being a confident and competent woman is a worthwhile endeavor, and we would love to work side by side anyone who can bring that to the table.
Claire Temple is one of those nurses who is able to adapt to and become effective in any situation she is presented with. It’s an important skill for this factious nurse, since she’s essentially two characters from the middle of the 20th century combined into one 21st century icon. In 2015, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) made a classic Marvel time-travel move, appearing in multiple episodes of Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Iron Fist, and The Defenders. She is effectively a composite of Claire Temple, a doctor who routinely trades medical help for life saving with Luke Cage in the 1970’s Marvel comics, and Linda Carter, the Night Nurse, who in the 1970s comics provides off-the-record medical care for superheroes’ abnormal, injured bodies. Even if they never call her Night Nurse in the Netflix series, we would love to work with both Claire Temple, because of her dedication to her values, and her fearless commitment to true defenders of justice.
Although the Shonda Rhimes hit Grey’s Anatomy closely chronicles surgery students, doctors, and hospital administrators, they could never get away with a realistic working hospital without nurses – especially in a hospital where the doctors spend as much time getting into trouble and finding places to have romantic encounters as they do at Seattle Grace Hospital. In true Grey’s fashion, the nurse we would love to work with, Eli Lloyd, is as brilliant as he is beautiful. His persistent, yet gentlemanly romantic pursuit of Dr. Miranda Bailey (the only Grey’s doctor you should trust to operate on you) shows that he is not only respectful – he has good taste. He also is never scared to keep some of the more ridiculous doctors in line, in moments they forgot how to be professional. Still going strong on ABC network since 2005, the entire series can also be streamed online on most streaming sites.
Christina Hawthorne is the eponymous central character in Hawthorne, which ran for three seasons between 2009 and 2011 on TNT. Jada Pinkett Smith took the lead role of Hawthorne, a chief nursing officer at Richmond Trinity Hospital in Virginia, and the show’s 30 episodes displayed the drama affecting her personal and professional life. While the nurse sometimes faced challenges in her relationship with Dr. Tom Wakefield, the chief of surgery, she still demonstrated her passion for her job – and her willingness to risk it to defend her patients and staff. In 2011 Truth About Nursing noted the show’s representation of nursing authority and skill.
The sitcom Julia ran on NBC from 1968 to 1971, and its title role, played by Diahann Carroll, was one of the first female African American characters to be represented outside of the stereotypical limitations of American television. The show revolved around widowed single mother and nurse Julia Baker, and it is now considered groundbreaking – even if at the time reviewers were often less than enthusiastic, labeling it unrealistic and apolitical. While Carroll thought that Julia was often light in dealing with the issues at hand, she was captivated by the character herself and is said to have identified with her from “the inside and out.” In 1969 the show earned Carroll an Emmy nomination, not to mention a Julia Barbie doll.
Scrubs ran for a remarkable nine seasons between 2001 and 2010, first on NBC and then on ABC. It followed the lives of staff at the Sacred Heart teaching hospital, but it’s Judy Reyes’ outspoken Carla Espinosa who is arguably one of the most memorable characters. Throughout the series, viewers saw the head nurse’s relationship with surgeon Christopher Turk lead to marriage and children. Espinosa is a spunky, no-nonsense individual who isn’t afraid to challenge doctors when needed, and she even has a connection with Dr. Cox, who terrorizes most of the other staff. While the show’s focus was often on comedy, this had no effect on Reyes’ drive for authenticity, as the actress took inspiration, technical knowledge and personality for the part from her real-life-nurse sister, who later told her, “You stole my character!”
Nurse Epiphany Johnson is everything we would want in a co-worker at General Hospital. She is no stranger to sharing her sound opinions with unsuspecting and entitled doctors, and she is hard-working and reliable. She is a cancer survivor, has survived more than one heart attack, and the very image of resiliency as she also lost her beloved son Stan, to gun violence. She has been the head nurse at General Hospital since we met her character, played by Sonya Eddy. She keeps the place together, and out works nearly every professional there, providing mentorship to new nurses and support to doctors when they need it.
Peter Petrelli, played by Milo Ventimiglia, is one of the main characters in superhero drama Heroes, which ran on NBC from 2006 to 2010. His special power is “empathic mimicry”– the ability to copy or even soak up the powers of other superheroes – a more benign version of the power held by series villain Sylar. In contrast to his politician brother, Nathan, Peter chooses a career in hospice nursing and later becomes a paramedic. His compassion is a defining part of his makeup; Tim Kring, the series’ creator, has said that the character’s superpower is “based on his empathy and his ability to connect with people.”
Carol Hathaway is a registered nurse and is the nurse manager in the emergency room of Chicago’s County General Hospital on the 1994-2009 medical drama ER on NBC. As a nurse manager, she is the right amount of bossy and compassionate, getting things done, but not at the expense of ensuring that nurse working conditions are satisfactory and they are recognized for the outstanding work they do. Played by Julianna Margulies, Nurse Hathaway holds a master’s degree in nursing and is not an uncomplicated person. After a very scary suicide attempt in the beginning of the series, Nurse Carol shows grit and determination, coming back not only to become and excellent manager, but also an example of resiliency. She intends to go to medical school at some point, but decides against it because she sees that her job as a nurse is worthwhile.
Commander Christine Chapel, RN, was a Human Starfleet officer in the 23rd century. Her character appeared on each season of Star Trek, the Original Series, as well as Star Trek: The Animated Series and the films Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. She not only brings a calm and confident demeanor to the ship, but she also must be extremely good at her job, given that she must treat every intergalactic species that comes on board. She keeps herself occupied with both her medical duties working alongside Dr. McCoy, as well as her command duties, but does not shy away from her personal interests. One of these interests is Mr. Spock, the seemingly uninterested Vulcan/Human hybrid character, upon whom she showers unrequited love. She served in the Medical Department, a subsection of the sciences division, aboard the USS Enterprise from 2266 to 2270 as a nurse, and in the mid-2270s as a doctor, under the command of Captain James T. Kirk. In 2286, she was assigned to Starfleet Command. She shows that dedication and hard work not only gets rewarded in space, but also might get the attention of a Vulcan who struggles with emotion.
Nurse Joy (Pokémon)
Nurse Joy debuted in Pokémon Emergency, the video game and cartoon that features creatures who are connected to the four elements, and exist as fighters in epic battles for resources and land for their trainers. When lead trainer Ash Ketchum finds his electric mouse character, Pikachu, critically injured from a fight, Ash rushes him to the Pokémon Center in capital Viridian City where Nurse Joy heals Pikachu. Whenever there is a Pokémon in trouble, Nurse Joy finds herself available to heal them, and even helps Ash and his best friend Brock after falling from a high building and hurting themselves. Without Nurse Joy, many Pokémon would not survive some of their harrowing adventures. She is ingenuitous and brave, sometimes risking capture by the nefarious Team Rocket to save the Pokémon, whom she adores. She gets honorable mention, because in our world, she would probably be a veterinary nurse, but is still a medical nurse professional we would love to work with!
Our Previous Top 10 TV Nurses ranking (reader poll)
- Julia Baker – Julia
- Rory Williams – Doctor Who
- Peter Petrelli – Heroes
- Veronica Flanagan Callahan – Mercy
- Dixie McCall – Emergency!
- Christina Hawthorne – Hawthorne
- Samantha Taggart – ER
- Jackie Peyton – Nurse Jackie
- Helen Rosenthal – St. Elsewhere
- Carla Espinosa – Scrubs